In first and second grade, my teacher encouraged us to make books so we could practice our writing skills. At the time I was very impressed with myself because I wrote a lot of books. In looking through these “books”, 30 years later, I am amused by the fact that very few of them are actually finished. I would start off very excitedly and a few pages in, I would literally drop my pencil and move on to something else. The foreshadowing was unrecognized at the time, but looking back, it is quite telling.
Currently I’m working on scanning all my childhood paraphernalia, as it is starting to disintegrate into dust (construction paper is not meant to last). God knows I’ll probably get 1/3 of the way through and lose interest – in that regard, little has changed since second grade.
I do intend to share some of my early childhood creations, starting with this gem:
If I Had 3 Wishes
If there’s one thing I wish Mrs. Bush would have taught us, it would have been storyboarding. Maybe I was just out that day. But to this day I struggle to plan things out – preferring instead to jump in and get started, only to find out that I’ve run out of paper (or time, or budget) before I could finish my story.
I’m sitting outside on this lovely evening and I’ve been itching to blog for days now. There is a lot on my mind and I want to write about these things, but they are too hard right now. So instead, I will write about something that makes me happy.
This time of year always awakens excitement in me. Perhaps this is a remnant of my schoolgirl days, when the arrival of warm weather, insects chirping outside the open windows, and being able to wear shorts again were signals that school was almost over for the year.
It’s no secret that I was not a big fan of school. Just like it’s no secret that I am not a big fan of work. Hah! Of course I always enjoyed learning and doing interesting things, but school, like work, wasn’t always fun and games.
From Memorial Day onward, school got fun. It was like we could all see the light at the end of the tunnel. Countdowns of remaining school days were chalked out on the board. Teachers would conduct classes with the lights off, to keep the room cooler (did it though?) Rules could be bent a little. The excitement was palpable.
Summer was hands down my favorite time of year as a kid. Waking up in the full light of day to the scent of freshly cut grass and moseying on down to the kitchen for a bowl of cereal was soon followed by asking Mom if I could go in the pool. Usually pool activities were reserved for after lunch, when it was hotter and after Mom had been able to get some things done around the house, but it never hurt to ask. I loved that pool so much. While on land I often felt clunky and awkward, once I was in the water I felt as graceful as a dolphin. Mind you, I may have looked awkward to anyone watching, but I was having fun.
Sometimes we would take trips down to the shore. My great-grandparents had a trailer down in Somers Point, and we would stay there for a couple of days at a time through the summer. Days would be spent alternately choking down seawater as I attempted to play in the waves and getting burnt to a crisp on the beach, while evenings were spent chowing down steak sandwiches or pizza and then going on rides along the boardwalk in Ocean City. As a kid, I thought Ocean City was the most magical place ever.
As you can see, a couple of day of warm weather and I’m easily transported back to the enthusiasm I had for summer as a young kid. I only wish I could have the amount of time off that I did back then! Maybe it’s time to reconsider my career path…
Speaking of which, tomorrow I’m off to Chicago, but I will be leaving exactly 24 hours later. Talk about a whirlwind trip!
Several years ago, I came across a box of my school things. I’m certain the contents of this box will provide much fodder for the Throwback Thursday series, but for today I’m just going to comment on my memories of learning to read and write.
I was one of those lucky kids who learned how to read easily. I can hardly remember a time where I couldn’t read. Once I started reading, I couldn’t stop. I would read everything I could get my hands on – even reading all the labels on the soap, shampoo and toothpaste in the bathroom. I wanted to read EVERYTHING!
At school, reading class often consisted of reading aloud from our text book, one student reading a paragraph and then someone else reading the next. I quickly tired of dragging along while some of the kids stumbled over words, or read at a snail’s pace. So I would read ahead in the book, and end up reading the whole story before the group had moved past the third paragraph. Then I would grow bored and flip ahead and read something else in the book, or I’d doodle and daydream until it was time to do our workbook lessons.
Does anyone enjoy doing worksheets? This I remember being even more agonizing than listening to my classmates read out loud. Sadly, being that this was 2nd grade, I had another 10 years of worksheets ahead of me. Dun dun dun!
I much preferred when we were able to do creative writing exercises, like contemplating potential disasters.
I’m almost certain that my teacher did not ask us to write about what would cause a train accident. Unless one had recently been in the news and she was helping us work through our fears, but I kind of doubt it. Whatever the case, I got a +400! Wow!
The year is 1991. Kids really do wear their hair in aqua-net-encased creations of spiked mullets and towering bangs (the grunge wave has not yet reached our suburban landscape). My personal soundtrack consists of anything REM, the Bryan Adams’ single “Everything I Do”, and Disney’s Little Mermaid soundtrack. I think I am turning out to be pretty cool.
I have just started the sixth grade at Log College Middle School, and while I would never admit to actually liking school, it’s going pretty well so far. One day a teacher asks me to run a note to the principal’s office during class. The hallway is strangely empty and quiet without the usual between-class hustle and bustle. I walk briskly and cheerfully towards the principal’s office, enjoying my few moments’ escape from the classroom. At the far end of the hall I notice another girl walking toward me. As she gets closer I see her face is crumpled in a frown. Her lip curls up in a sneer.
“Why don’t you get some markers and color your hair?”
My heart leaps to my throat. Markers? I am so taken back by her strange statement that all I can do is look at her with a stunned expression. My face grows warm and I quickly turn away and walk faster towards the principal’s office. “Markers!” She yells at my back with a laugh.
By this time in my life I am used to kids finding something about me to make fun of, or to be freaked out by. I’ve come to expect it. For the most part I’m able to ignore the stares and the whispers, but the feeling of being different and weird never really goes away. Still, there is always some hope that I can get through a day without anyone commenting on my looks, or pointing out how I’m different.
A few days later, I am walking down the hall with a group of friends and I see the girl coming towards me again. I tense up and wait for her to strike. Our eyes lock as she approaches. She wrinkles up her nose and mutters “Get some markers, and color that white hair!” as she passes. “Shut up!” I whisper, feeling embarrassed. My friend Emilee turns around. “Were you just talking to that girl?” She asks. “No, it’s nothing,” I assure her.
Weeks go by and this continues. I don’t see this girl every day, but whenever I do she sneers and says something about markers. One afternoon in the library, I come across the yearbook from the previous year. I flip through and look at all the kids a year ahead of me. I spot her almost immediately, with her jaunty grin and cold eyes. The text beneath the picture says Moonbeam Landingham.
Wait, what? I laugh out loud right there in the library. Her name is actually Moonbeam Landingham. It’s like a made-up name! I am delighted with this revelation.
The next time I see her in the hall, she asks me if I’ve got any markers yet. “No, Moonbeam,” I retort, “Do you have any I could borrow?” Her eyes widen. She scurries up the stairway and I call out her name after her once more.
Moonbeam* never bothered me again after that.
Her name wasn’t actually Moonbeam Landingham, but it was something similar. I always wondered if her parents were hippies or if they were just having fun playing with an unusual last name.
While at the time I passionately hated “Moonbeam Landingham” because of the way she treated me, I have since realized that she probably had issues of her own that she was dealing with and maybe it made her feel powerful to pick on someone like me. With a name like hers, she probably got picked on herself.
What I learned from that experience was that sometimes all it takes to stop someone from bothering you is to stand up to them and show them you won’t take it. In this case, it took me discovering that this girl had a funny name to give me the courage to speak up. I’ve also learned that oftentimes people who are mean to others are really unhappy themselves. Of course that doesn’t give anyone the right to be mean, but it’s a reminder that it’s THEIR problem, not yours.
Every Friday morning, NPR airs a short segment called Story Corps. I often catch it on my way to work. Last week, it was a story told by a father whose 14-year-old son committed suicide after being bullied relentlessly. In recent years, there have been a lot of stories of kids killing themselves after being bullied. My heart goes out to these kids and their parents, of course. But this past week’s story got me thinking about bullies and the effect their victim’s suicide has on them. Does it make them stop bullying? Do they even realize how their actions have so drastically affected someone else’s life? Do they even care?
When I was a kid, there were bullies at my school whom I avoided as much as I could. Even now, my stomach sinks to think of how insecure and helpless I felt in their presence. At the time, I didn’t give much thought as to why they would be treating me the way they did. I took the burden of blame on myself. I was an unusual looking kid with a funny little voice, so I accepted that they had reasons to make fun of me. Of course I wished they would find some other way to pass the time, but I just assumed they were wholly mean and bad kids.
Now that I’m an adult I am aware that oftentimes bullies are bullies because they’ve learned this behavior as a way of raising their social rank, to make up for their own shortcomings and insecurities. They bully to establish dominance and control. They’ve often been bullied themselves. So I wonder, if a bully’s victim commits suicide, does the bully feel vindicated because it proves (to them) that the person was weak and worthless? Or do they suddenly realize that the kid they were always picking on was actually a whole person, with feelings and potential, and had a family that loved him?
I tried being a bully once. At recess one day I noticed that a chubby Italian boy was wearing a football jersey with the name Meatball across the back instead of his last name. I poked him and jeered “Ha-ha, it says Meatball because you’re fat!” totally failing to grasp that that was the joke. He raised his eyebrows before rolling his eyes and walking away. While I’d initially felt an adrenaline rush for having stepped out of my comfort zone, I was left feeling like a jerk and definitely did not gain any power from the interaction.
Whenever I hear of a bullying-induced suicide, I think back to my own experiences and how, no matter how much crap was dealt, I never felt compelled to kill myself. I certainly did have days of feeling worthless and despicable. There were a lot of times where I would feign illness in order to stay home from school so I wouldn’t have to deal with another day of being told I was hideous, freakish and unlikable. I was fortunate to have a stable home life and siblings who loved me for who I was and who never looked at me with disgust because of my physical appearance. I was also lucky to have friends outside of school who were able to see past my outer appearance and who appreciated my wild imagination and sense of humor. And while I was at school, my wild imagination kept me company even in the worst of times.
So if you are reading this and you are a victim of bullying, please hang in there. You can grow up to be so much stronger than your peers because you have put up with this. Don’t let other people determine your worth. Remember your strengths and keep pushing ahead with them, whether it be academics or art or music or sports. Do what makes you happy, and be yourself. There is so much more to life than what happens in school. It’s hard to realize it now, when it seems all that matters is who you sit with at lunch, or that your clothes have the right label. It may seem like an eternity before you will be out of school, but one day it will come and life will open up to you. In the real world there is a place for everyone, and thanks to the internet, you can find people all over the world who are “just like you” in one way or another.
Halloween has never been a favorite day of mine. As a little kid I was unsettled by the fake tombstones and cobwebbed skeletons that adorned my normally pleasant-looking neighborhood. Even now, I don’t understand people’s fascination with death and gore, like the current zombie craze that affects some of my coworkers. I have lived through experiences where I felt like a zombie. Remembering my own face colored in various shades of bruise, blood leaking from my nostrils, or the corners of my mouth after surgery, and remembering just how awful it felt, both mentally and physically… I just don’t understand the appeal of pretending to be undead.
Masks are also unsettling. The frozen expression, even if it is a jolly one, hides the real emotions and intentions of the person wearing it. Even characters at theme parks have given me an uneasy feeling and I never rushed to be photographed with them. Who knew what kind of creep was lurking under that cheesy grin and oversized head?
Surgeons wear masks. The second surgery I ever had in my life was on October 30th, 1980. I was only 4 months old at the time so it is unlikely that I consciously remember any of it, but I wonder sometimes if my aversion to Halloween comes from being in the hospital over that time. Undoubtedly the children’s ward was decorated for the occasion. Or maybe my aversion comes from the simple fact that every time I saw people with their faces covered by surgical masks, I was having an unhappy experience.
When I was really young, I enjoyed dressing up like a princess or a ballerina (which sadly I can’t seem to find pictures of!). In the snapshot above, I’m wearing a homemade scarecrow costume. (Thanks, Mom!) Not once did I want to dress up as something frightening.
As I’ve mentioned before, my technique for surviving at school was to blend in as much as possible. While Halloween could have been a really fun time for me to experiment with crazy costumes or even disguise myself completely, I almost never did this. By 4th grade, Mom had apparently grown tired of making homemade costumes and instead bought me a cheap clown costume. It was a hideous one-piece polyester affair, with a wire hoop in the seam between the pants and the shirt which made it look like I had huge hips. As I was just entering puberty and beginning to feel even more self conscious about my body, this was not the greatest choice. All day I bumped those awkward hips on chairs, desks, fellow students – you name it. By the time I boarded the bus home (where I had to turn sideways to make it down the aisle), I was ready to burn that stupid costume and never dress up again.
As often happens in childhood, the thing you hated and passionately swore you would never do again is soon forgotten about. The next year, I dressed as a witch, complete with a long black wig, green face paint and a fake nose. It was the first costume that really disguised my true identity and let me blend in with the other kids.
In 6th grade, my middle school put on a Halloween dance. Everyone was to go in costume. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t be caught dead going to a school dance, where I envisioned myself sitting alone on the sidelines as everyone else had the time of their lives. However, remembering the anonymity of last year’s witch ensemble, I decided to check it out. I dressed as a fortune teller in a dark dress with a sparkly shawl and the trusty black wig. I wore false eyelashes and bold lipstick. At the dance I hung out with my little group of friends but as I walked among the other students, I held my head high and once again felt liberated from my usual bumbling, apologetic self. Some kids even peered at me and wondered who I was. “I sit behind you in algebra!” I said to one girl, who had apparently been unaware of my existence until that very moment. After the dance (at which there was little to no actual dancing), I was high on adrenaline from having just accomplished a social milestone- my first school dance- without having felt ostracized or awkward or even a little bit self conscious. The power of a costume!
Fortunately as I’ve grown up, I have learned to be much more comfortable in my own skin, helped by little bits of “costume” that have been added along the way, like all the surgeries that have reshaped my face, the dental work and artistry that created my smile and the makeup I wear to accentuate my eyes. Most everyone has some means of improving their natural looks to make themselves presentable.
This blog has existed for many years in my mind’s eye. I have been putting it off for one reason or another, but the biggest reason is that I am hesitant to open myself up to criticism and judgement when it comes to something so personal. So bear with me as I slowly peel back my layers and release these thoughts and feelings I’ve been holding onto for years.
Growing up “different” isn’t easy for anyone, of course. It’s a basic human need to feel accepted and part of a group. When you start out your social life being an outsider, you quickly learn how to change yourself and to hide the qualities that make you different. For me, since my appearance was so unique among my peers, one of the ways I adapted at school was to keep as quiet and unobtrusive as possible.
It’s hard to be a wallflower when your very appearance makes you stand out in a crowd, but in every other aspect, I tried to fade into the background as much as humanly possible. This worked as far as keeping bullies and meanies at bay – after all, what kind of jerk goes out of their way to pick on the girl who always has her nose in a book and never makes eye contact with anyone? (Ok, some jerks DID bully me, but quickly tired of it since they got no reaction from me.)
The downside of always keeping my nose in a book and my head in the clouds was that I didn’t enjoy school much, or make many friends (I must give a shout-out to the kind souls like Emilee, Chrissie, Jessica, and Marie, to name a few, who reached out and included me.) I was also fortunate to have several friends outside of school, especially my two best friends Chrissy and Joanna, without whom I can not imagine my childhood days.
Now, 20+ years after my school days, I have grown more confident, more outspoken and less concerned with “fitting in” and being “normal.” After all, they say normal is boring. Despite this, I still have days of wishing I could just hide under the covers and not have to go out in the big scary world. I am still somewhat socially awkward, though I now embrace this about myself. It’s me, socially awkward girl! I’ve overcome a lot of obstacles, but there continue to be challenges ahead. I see a bright future for myself and know that I can continue to work through my “issues” and hopefully help others work through theirs.